In the playroom

So, we saw, and were very entertained by a film in which a young man meets his girlfriend’s wealthy family at their home. They include an authoritative dad and a drunken son. Something isn’t right. He starts to suspect he’s fallen into a terrible trap…

But I’m not talking about GET OUT, which we also enjoyed very much. Today’s topic is HOLIDAY, which I can’t believe I haven’t seen before, and which has now shot up to the top of my George Cukor list. What was there before? I’m not even sure. The problem with me, when you come right down to it, is that I probably didn’t have a George Cukor list at all.

This one is classed as a screwball comedy — while I realise that nothing is more boring or pointless than arguing about genre definitions. Screwball, apart from being quintessentially American and essentially mid-thirties to mid-forties, is really more like a collection of desirable items than a readily-defined genre. If you have enough of the items, as we do here (eccentric heiress, class barriers overcome, playful/childish behaviour asserted as a right) then it ought to qualify. But there’s also the indefinable, personal quality of what it feels like. And in a sense I felt the anxiety of the pressure to conform in HOLIDAY more strongly and consistently than I felt the joy of letting go. In a sense, the joy is intensified by the pressures around it, but the forces that are at work to make Cary Grant into a highly-paid wage slave and trophy husband are always on our minds.

Cary Grant gets to show off his expertise in tumbling with a series of spectacular back-flips. Katherine Hepburn is more vulnerable than usual, and makes it work. Lew Ayres is, my God, TERRIFIC — the heart and soul of the film, in a way. If the movie isn’t as well-known as the Hepburn-Cukor PHILADELPHIA STORY, also from a play by Philip Barry, it may because Ayres complicates it, makes it less than totally joyous. He’s a casualty of the household Hepburn and Grant have to escape, and we don’t really believe he’s ever going to be alright. So the happy ending, which is inevitable, is surprisingly compromised, undermined — elated, but with a scintilla of unease.

This movie makes me curious to see the 1930 original — it was an indecently-soon remake. Edward Everett Horton plays the same role in both versions (he’s marvelously understated, by his eccentric standards). I’m also curious about another Barry adaptation, the pro-Soviet SPRING MADNESS, with Ayres again, directed by my recent discovery S. Sylvan Simon. TCM is airing that one soon if American readers are curious.

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15 Responses to “In the playroom”

  1. In the Beyond Splendid “Igby Goes Down” the heroes mentally-unbalanced father shows “Holiday” to his son — clearly indicating it demonstrates how the upper crust actually works.

    Lew Ayres plays my favorite “coded gay” character of the 30’s. Cukor gets this across with his usual subtle panache.

    Great, great movie.

  2. And so rich is Cukor’s career that a recent volume from Edinburgh University Press devoted to his work, doesn’t even mention Holiday once.

  3. That’s outrageous!

  4. Paul Clipson Says:

    Besides the omission of HOLIDAY, how is that new Cukor book, David? Have you read it?

  5. A lovely film with a unique bittersweet flavour, flawlessly acted and directed. I like Jean Dixon as Horton’s wife, too, and it’s amusing to see Henry Daniell and Binnie Barnes being prim and pompous.

  6. Jean Dixon is a marvel, and she and Horton make a sweet couple.

    I haven’t delved deeply into the Cukor book (a collection of essays, so it’s not aiming to cover the whole field), but the companion volume on Sturges has some very good pieces in it.

  7. This isn’t screwball – it’s close to realistic. Hepburn’s character is as trapped as Ayres at the beginning and Grant has been deliberately chosen by her sister as the man who can keep the money rolling in.

  8. Yes. And the rub is he feels he has enough money. That’s blasphemy to her set. And it’s why Hepburn’s character is such a rebel. Very different from “The Philadelphia Story” where the rich are all quite nice.

  9. revelator60 Says:

    “…a recent volume from Edinburgh University Press devoted to his work, doesn’t even mention Holiday once.”

    If you’re referring to George Cukor: Hollywood Master, that book contains an essay titled “The Cukor ‘Problem’: David Copperfield, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story” by Robert B. Ray, and google preview (https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-george-cukor.html) shows that Ray does indeed devote a section to Holiday.

  10. bensondonald Says:

    I can see where the 1930 version might have problems. It wasn’t a good year to warn moviegoers against becoming rich.

  11. You’re right! I made the mistake of looking in the index, which bears no trace of it.

    The piece looks pretty good, with tons of research on the play and the previous version and Hepburn’s having understudied it. Though Ray begins by saying that George Stevens didn’t make any good comedies. Even James Harvey, who can be quite harsh on Stevens, admits that The More the Merrier is perfection.

  12. Ray’s article reports that the play suddenly stopped being a hit around that time. He also does some commendable close examination of a scene as staged in both versions, to pin down aspects of Cukor’s “invisible style.”

  13. chris schneider Says:

    I’ve always preferred HOLIDAY to PHILADELPHIA STORY, though I esteem ’em both. The Lew Ayres character is a big plus, of course, but it’s mostly ’cause HOLIDAY doesn’t labor to tear Hepburn from her throne. Lighter on the *schadenfreude*, it is.

    I think it was a James Harvey book on screwball that said what textbook examples of screwball do is take accepted sanctities and turn them on their head. HOLIDAY does this with its nose-thumbing at the cult of financial success.

    The word I hear about the earlier HOLIDAY movie is that, while the leads are inferior, some of the subsidiary players — notably Mary Astor — are stronger.

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    To what moment is the first true closeup in HOLIDAY allotted? And how powerful is it?

  15. Discovery of Hepburn with musical toy, alone in playroom, avoiding party? About halfway through the film! There are considerably fewer than ten closeups in it. I don’t think Cary gets ANY, they’re all Hepburn plus one of Ayres, right?

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